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22.11.2002 Ivory Coast

Ghana booms in shadow of Ivory Coast's war

By Reuters
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APEATU, Ghana, Nov 22 -- Sheltering from the pelting rain under a leaky tin roof deep inside Ghana, Kwaku Cephas Netu says he knows nothing about a war in Ivory Coast that is already changing his life.

This year he will get much better paid for the cocoa ripening on his trees because Ghana has raised prices in line with markets pushed higher by the fighting in the world's biggest cocoa producer next door.

Meanwhile, his hamlet of Apeatu is shaken every few minutes by another truck full of goods heading north on a road that has suddenly become the main lifeline for landlocked states on the fringes of the Sahara desert.

"It looks like we should get more money this year, but we don't really know the reason," said Netu, who guesses his age at 50 and has been working since he was old enough to wield a machete.

"First I hope to expand my plantation. If there is anything left over then I will think about how I can spend it," he said at his farm, some 50 km (30 miles) north of the capital Accra.

As a result of higher cocoa prices and the extra business coming its way, Ghana stands to benefit more from the war in Ivory Coast more than any other West African country.

But the crisis also raises the prospect of a tide of millions of refugees crossing Ghana's border and a creeping fear that no country in the region is safe -- potentially scaring off the investment Ghana needs so badly.

"It's unfortunate that one is in the position in the short term where one benefits because of a neighbour's trouble," Information Minister Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey told Reuters.

"But it is not in our interest for Ivory Coast's trouble to continue. We are doing all we can to help," he said. BRIGHT SPOT A rare bright spot on West Africa's beleaguered coast, Ghana sells itself as among the region's most democratic countries after last year's peaceful handover from one-time army ruler Jerry Rawlings to former opposition leader John Kufuor.

Economic reforms to make business easier proceed in fits and starts, but President Kufuor has generally kept donors on side and Ghana is now among poor countries getting debt relief under special terms.

"The macro-economic situation is improving. Inflation is down, the currency has stabilised and we think things will improve further," said Sam Quaye of Merchant Bank (Ghana) Ltd.

"Interest rates were at up to 50 percent before this government came in and they are now down to 23 or 24 percent. Higher cocoa prices will be good although high oil prices will absorb some of the benefit."

The contrast between Ghana's optimism and the pessimism of its richer neighbour Ivory Coast could hardly be starker, but the two countries have rarely moved in tandem.

A former British colony, Ghana won independence in 1957 with a defiant brand of socialist-flavoured nationalism. It soon sank into decades of coups and mismanagement that brought it to ruin before Rawlings managed to restore some stability.

Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960 and then encouraged foreigners to come and help build what became a haven of peace and prosperity until a 1999 coup against a backdrop of surging ethnic, political and religious tensions.

The war that erupted in a September 19 coup has destroyed any hope Ivory Coast had of winning back its reputation.

With 18 million people, Ghana is bigger than Ivory Coast's 16 million, though its 2001 gross domestic product was only $5.3 billion compared to Ivory Coast's $10.4 billion, according to World Bank figures.

Hotels in Accra report a growing number of businessmen splitting their time between the two countries or thinking of moving for good if the war does not end swiftly. h4> CAUGHT OFF GUARD But despite Ghana's efforts to market itself as the "Gateway to West Africa", it has been caught off guard by the sudden chance to become just that.

Clogged ports and dilapidated roads are badly in need of development. State-run Ghana Airways dominates air links to the region but its ageing planes have a pitiful reputation for keeping to their schedule, let alone expanding it.

"It takes so long for anything to move here," complained one Western businessman. "The roads and ports needed to be done years ago to benefit now. If works starts now it could even be disruptive."

Much more of a worry for Ghana is the potential for instability that Ivory Coast's war has suddenly introduced.

West Africa's creeping anarchy began from Liberia's civil war in the 1990s before destroying Sierra Leone in years of savage conflict. Now Ivory Coast has brought the teenage warriors and their Kalashnikovs to Ghana's doorstep.

Although some of the same ethnic groups cross the border with Ivory Coast, Ghana's society is nowhere near as polarised along tribal or religious lines as its neighbour and diplomats say that makes conflict far less likely.

Political tempers still run high, though, and elections are due in two years' time.

Meanwhile, Ghana faces the prospect of millions of refugees arriving if Ivory Coast's crisis worsens. Tens of thousands of West African immigrants have already made their way across Ghana back to Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

"We have increased security along the border to prevent any combatants from crossing," said Obetsebi-Lamptey.

"We have also prepared refugee corridors for those who cross. Our strategy is to keep them on the move. We cannot afford to take any risks."

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